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Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Romantic Era > Overture to "Tannhäuser" (Wagner)

Overture to "Tannhäuser"

Richard Wagner

Wagner first conceived the idea of writing "Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg" ("Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at the Wartburg") while visiting the castle of Wartburg in Thuringia in 1842, and the opera was first produced in Dresden in 1845. The story of Tannhäuser’s love for Elizabeth, his yielding to the seductive influences of Venus and his chanting her praises in the singers’ contest, his penitential pilgrimage to Rome and struggle with the sirens as he returns, and his final expiation and pardon by the side of Elizabeth’s bier, is a familiar one to every concert goer. The overture is one of the great masterpieces in that class of musical composition and is here described in Wagner’s own words:

"At its commencement the orchestra rehearses the song of pilgrims, which, as it approaches, grows louder and louder, and at length recedes. It is twilight; the last strain of the pilgrims’ song is heard. As night comes on, magical phenomena present themselves; a roseate-hued and fragrant mist arises, wafting voluptuous shouts of joy to our ears. We are made aware of the dizzy motion of a horribly wanton dance.

"These are the seductive magic spells of the Venusberg, which at the hour of night reveal themselves to those whose breasts are inflamed with unholy desire. Attracted by these enticing phenomena, a tall and manly figure approaches; it is Tannhäuser, the Minnesinger. Proudly exulting, he trolls forth his jubilant love song as if to challenge the wanton magic crew to turn their attention to himself. Wild shouts respond to his call; the roseate cloud surrounds him more closely; its enrapturing fragrance overwhelms him and intoxicates his brain. Endowed now with supernatural powers of vision, he perceives, in the dim seductive light spread out before him, an unspeakably lovely female figure; he hears a voice which, with its tremulous sweetness, sounds like the call of sirens, promising to the brave the fulfillment of his wildest wishes. It is Venus herself whom he sees before him. Heart and soul he burns with desire; hot, consuming longing inflames the blood in his veins; by an irresistible power he is drawn into the presence of the goddess and with the highest rapture raises his song in her praise. As if in response to his magic call, the wonder of the Venusberg is revealed to him in its fullest brightness; boisterous shouts of wild delight re-echo on every side; Bacchantes rush hither and thither in their drunken revels, and, dragging Tannhäuser into their giddy dance, deliver him over to the love-warm arms of the goddess, who, passionately embracing him, carries him off, drunken with joy, to the unapproachable depths of her invisible kingdom. The wild throng then disperses and their commotion ceases. A voluptuous, plaintive whirring alone now stirs the air, and a horrible murmur pervades the spot where the enrapturing profane magic spell had shown itself, and which now again is overshadowed by darkness. Day at length begins to dawn, and the song of the returning pilgrims is heard in the distance. As their song draws nearer, and day succeeds to night, that whirring and murmuring in the air, which but just now sounded to us like the horrible wail of the damned, gives way to more joyful strains, till at last, when the sun has risen in all its splendor, and the pilgrims’ song with mighty inspiration proclaims to the world and to all that is and lives salvation won, its surging sound swells into a rapturous torrent of sublime ecstasy. This divine song represent to us the shout of joy at his release from the curse of the unholiness of the Venusberg. Thus all the pulses of life palpitate and leap for joy in this sing of deliverance; and the two divided elements, spirit and mind, God and nature, embrace each other in the holy uniting Kiss of Love."

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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